[If you’re not reading this on chichilations, then you’re reading a stolen copy. Reposts are not allowed anywhere or for any reason!
Links for mobile viewers: Ko-fi Donation — Translator’s Twitter — Project Index — EPUB Library
I see all your likes and comments~ Thanks in advance~
The sponsors of this large-sized (6k) chapter are: Sina E. (3), duron1ar (9)!
(Click here for details on how sponsored chapters work.)]
Wang Zhi sneered. “You’re a real let-down.”
And yet, he noticed soon after that it was not just Tang Fan who was a let-down, but Pang Qi and rest’s faces were also slightly twitching, Sui Zhou excluded. Evidently, in just one short moment, he had made all the men in the world feel sympathy.
“No need to look back inside. The rear door is also blocked off by us, and your assistant can’t escape. His knowledge certainly isn’t as much as yours, though. We’re not interested in him.”
Eunuch Wang paid no mind to anyone else, staring at Shopkeep Jin like a viper staring at its prey. “I’m guessiiiing… that even if you don’t have a wife or children, you don’t want to turn straight into a eunuch, right? Your injury is still treatable right about now, but if you don’t talk… tsk, tsk. It’ll be hard to say!”
Seeing this, Tang Fan felt that the other’s ‘smile’ would be more appropriately described as an evil grin.
“I’ll give you a quarter-hour, hm? Don’t say that I, Wang Zhi, am too cruel.” Wang Zhi clapped his hands, peering at the hourglass beside him. Before Shopkeep Jin could react, he went, “Three, two, one. Okay, time’s up. Have you thought this over enough?”
He took the kerchief out of Shopkeep Jin’s mouth.
“D-Didn’t you say a quarter-hour…?” The shopkeeper’s eyes were wide, voice cracking and broken due to the pain.
“Your quarter-hour isn’t the same as mine,” Wang Zhi coldly laughed.
Shopkeep Jin was shocked by his tyranny and lack of fairness.
Seeing the disbelieving expression on his face, for some reason, Tang Fan found it a little hard to resist laughing. He recalled a phrase: Evildoers will yet be tormented by even worse evildoers.
Not giving the shopkeeper time to hesitate, Wang Zhi took out a dagger, then drew it out of its sheath. Cold light was seen to glint on it, sharp enough to split hairs.
“Fine. If you won’t talk, I’ll do you a favor. Don’t you worry; even though you can’t enter the palace at your age, there’s always some with particular kinks in the world that would like that mouth. Maybe you’ll get tossed to Southern Wind afterward to get your second spring breeze, and there will be no need for you to calculate on your abacus here every single day!”
He finished his speech with a nasty grin, raising up his knife with the dagger pointed down — straightforward, to-the-point, was what this was called.
Shopkeep Jin practically shrieked those words out, the sound so piercing, Tang Fan and the rest felt their eardrums tremble. The degree of dread in the shopkeeper’s heart was plain to see in this moment.
“I-I-I’ll talk, I’ll talk…” Tears and snot overflowed out of Shopkeep Jin, that fanged mouth able to deal with Tang Fan so easily now nowhere to be seen.
“Then talk!” Wang Zhi bellowed.
Shopkeep Jin shuddered, face filled with tear tracks as he looked at him blankly. “…A-a-about what?”
He had already been scared so stupid, he couldn’t react for a moment.
“Your connection with that Aunt Xing,” Wang Zhi amicably reminded.
Shopkeep Jin roused his spirits. “Right, right! I pass information along to her!”
“Someone, during each fixed period— someone comes here and tells me some information, then I tell her the information, and she spreads it out of the city!”
“Explain thoroughly! Don’t make me ask about all that individually!”
All things were difficult at their beginnings, but once the mouth was opened, all that came later was very easy.
Enduring the pain, Shopkeep Jin strove to speak more smoothly. “Just like th-this time, someone gave me a prescription! When Aunt Xing came, I recited it to her. Her husband is a doctor, so she’s well-learned in medicine, too, meaning she knows what symptoms correspond to prescriptions. After that, she’ll bring the prescription out of the city, which someone else accepts. Military information is hidden on the prescriptions.”
“Who gave you it?”
Even at this plight, Shopkeep Jin kept hesitating.
“Is it Steward Wang of the Commandant Estate?” Tang Fan interjected.
The shopkeeper shook his head repeatedly.
Wang Zhi did not have Tang Fan’s high patience, his dagger already raising. Reality had proven that violence was more likely to make one yield than appeasement, especially for people like Shopkeep Jin.
The latter’s eyes widened until they were round. “I know who, I do! Don’t do it! He’s from your estate!”
Shopkeep Jin dared not even breathe. “Ding Rong! It’s Ding Rong!”
As soon as that was said, everyone on-scene was a bit surprised, but after careful thought, it seemed to be within expectations.
Tang Fan suddenly recalled that after he had been slapped by Wang Zhi, Ding Rong had seen him off, telling him to apply panax or cattail out of quite some concern. At the bare minimum, that demonstrated that Ding Rong had something of an understanding of pharmaceutics, and him being able to think up the method of using prescriptions to convey messages was not shocking.
Very many people typically didn’t pay mind to such insignificant daily subjects, but as soon as something happened and they had hindsight, they would discover that clues had long been hidden in those casual, daily trivialities.
He also recalled that Wang Zhi had stated long ago that, sans Wang Yue and him, the only people that would be able to learn of what was happening in the military in time would be those close by their sides, and the officers subordinating them. Also, on the eve of every battle and prior to carrying out a military meeting with their subordinates, Wang Yue and Wang Zhi would pass correspondences to make sure they were on the same page, in order to prevent them from arguing during the meeting and making those below them unsure.
Since Wang Yue and he hadn’t leaked anything themselves, that made the confidantes at their sides the most suspicious persons. The problem there, however, was that since they were confidantes, they had to have their master’s deep confidence.
Speaking of Ding Rong alone, he had been following Wang Zhi ever since he left the palace to open the Western Depot, and because they were both eunuchs, he garnered even more of Wang Zhi’s trust. He, naturally, had not betrayed Wang Zhi’s high regards, handling each of his tasks satisfactorily, and he was clever in personality, always wanting to take three steps for every one he witnessed, doing everything for Wang Zhi.
For someone like that, even if Wang Zhi knew intellectually that he was suspicious, he found it hard to suspect him emotionally.
And yet, Shopkeep Jin had called out Ding Rong’s name.
Wang Zhi, cold-faced, stared at him, the look in his eyes like he was looking at a dead man. Shopkeep Jin nearly peed himself out of fear, sobbing and stammering. “I really didn’t lie to you! I didn’t! Each time, he would come visit on his own initiative, sometimes finding me, sometimes finding my boss, but in order to prevent his identity from being divulged, we couldn’t go find him!”
Rushing to get in before Wang Zhi could blow up, Tang Fan quickly stepped up to ask another question. “Speaking of which, did that thief that robbed me yesterday indeed have something to do with you, too?”
“Yes, yes!” Shopkeep Jin answered. “I told him to go out, because Aunt Xing had just left up ahead while you came chasing up right after! I feared that she would be exposed, so I had the thief go rob you to buy her time to leave!”
“His silencing afterwards was also your doing?”
“Yes. I feared that he would rat me out after you all found me, so I gave him silver smeared with poison on their surfaces. In their line of business, they would definitely verify the silver after the fact; so long as it entered his mouth, the poison would take effect after…”
“A comprehensive scheme. Unfortunately, I wasn’t suspecting Aunt Xing at all before, but Steward Wang. Your own acts in your guilt have instead exposed you.”
Face full of suffering, it was now too late for Shopkeep Jin to say anything.
“Who is the one Aunt Xing answers to, then?” Tang Fan asked again.
Shopkeep Jin shook his head. “I don’t know. We all only have a single-strand connection. I’m connected to Ding Rong’s information, and all I need to do is transfer it to Aunt Xing whenever she stops by…”
Seeing that everyone else’s expressions were ugly, he quickly added, “But I know where she lives! You can all go find her!”
“Who are you answering to? The Tartars? Or the White Lotus Society?”
“Back when famine hit my hometown, my entire family was wiped out, and I nearly starved to death on the journey fleeing. Someone ultimately rescued me, after which I learned that they were a White Lotus follower. I wanted to be able to eat enough, so they let me join the Society. I did, but I’m just a common follower right now…”
“You have the mark of the Society on you?”
“Yes, yes! On my waist!”
A Brocade Guard opened up the shopkeeper’s clothes for a look; there was indeed a tiny, blooming lotus shown on his left-side waist.
Before, when Tang Fan had infiltrated that deserted village on the outskirts of the capital to rescue Ah-Dong, he had met Lady Ninth, Envoy of the Overseer that had come to the Southside Gang from the Society. She had once explained to him about the Society’s mark, and had threatened to leave such a mark on him.
However, neither Li Man nor Lady Ninth had had marks, so Tang Fan and the rest had later surmised that the mark ought to only be made on low-tier followers, in order to constrain them and prevent them from turning coat.
As was known, the government was very strictly coming down upon the Society. The instant someone with the mark was discovered, they would inevitably punish them harshly. Because of this, Shopkeep Jin was loyal, too afraid to have the slightest bit of dissent, and also avoided having family ties afterwards, not even daring to take a wife again.
“That said, the owner of the pawnshop is also a Society follower?”
“He should be. After I joined, I followed their order to come settle in here, but the owner isn’t often seen. It’s pretty much just me managing the shop. They appear to have turned this place into a communication point using the front of a pawnshop to pass stuff along.”
Having been scared by Wang Zhi, Shopkeep Jin straight-up stated all he knew. In his opinion, Wang Zhi was way scarier than the White Lotus Society.
Tang Fan creased his brow. “The Society has tremendous influence in this city, then?”
“No, no. After Commandant Wang and Eunuch Wang came here, they hit the Society hard, causing it tragic losses and compelling the majority of its power to flee elsewhere. As far as I’m aware, only the thread of Ding Rong and I are left, else there wouldn’t be such a secret, isolated mode of information passage. As you all have seen, after a long time passes, getting caught is a certainty, but if there are more threads, this situation wouldn’t have happened today.”
As he was genuine, Tang Fan nodded. “So, what of Ding Rong? What’s his position in the Society?”
Shopkeep Jin had a pained face. “I don’t know. The boss only told me to listen to what he says. As for our boss himself, I only vaguely heard that he seems to be the Vice Vicar of this branch.”
“Do you know where he lives?”
“I do! This lowly can lead you there, if I can get my crime pardoned.”
Even though Shopkeep Jin’s life had been saved by the Society, their rescue had only been to get another useful follower. He had been on-edge these years, not even daring to snag a wife. He had really had enough of it; confessing the truth now was essentially a type of relief to him.
As soon as he heard ‘pardoned’, Wang Zhi made out his little calculations, laughing coldly at once. That made Shopkeep Jin start trembling; were it not for his hands being restricted, he would have thought to cover his groin.
With everything that should have been asked, asked, Tang Fan glanced at Sui Zhou and Wang Zhi. Seeing that they had nothing to say, he said to the latter, “Guangchuan and I will go find Aunt Xing’s residence that he talked about. How about you bring him to go find Ding Rong?”
Wang Zhi hummed, not speaking nonsense, immediately grabbed Shopkeep Jin, and walked out. His face was so overcast, it was about to condensate, while Shopkeep Jin was caught in his hand like a hawk would catch a chicken, too scared to make a sound.
All those twists and turns, and Ding Rong was actually a member of the White Lotus Society. He had been by Wang Zhi’s side the whole time, even having been regarded as his confidante. That fact was something a bit hard for Wang Zhi to accept — him being a poor mood was quite normal.
This matter could not be delayed. Tang Fan had no intention to worry more about Wang Zhi, discussing things with Sui Zhou, then heading for the posthouse to request some good horses and go straight for Guangling County.
Going by the location Shopkeep Jin had given, and the group of people asked while they searched, they soon found the Jiang residence at the foot of Qianfu Mountain.
Jiang Village, where the residence was, happened to be the hometown of Aunt Xing’s husband, Doctor Jiang. The completely sudden appearance of Tang Fan and the rest immediately alarmed the peaceful little place.
At exactly that moment, Aunt Xing was walking out of the house with feed, prepared to give it to the chickens in the yard. Upon seeing Pang Qi’s group powerfully kick in her door, she was so badly frightened, she hit and capsized the bowl, turned, and ran inside.
Why would the Guards let her have time to flee? They charged into the house, catching the Jiang couple red-handed.
Tang Fan and Sui Zhou were a step slower in walking into the room, and noticed that Aunt Xing actually had no intention of fleeing at all. She was prostrate beside a bed, tightly clutching the hand of a man atop it; he was half-reclined, having a panicked expression towards them.
The strong stink of medicine permeated the tiny house. Evidently, its patriarch was ill, and this wasn’t a matter that had happened merely a few days ago.
Aunt Xing hadn’t been completely fibbing, it seemed. Her husband was indeed sick.
Tang Fan looked at the man. “You are Doctor Jiang?”
“Who are all of you? We’re an average family with no extra wealth! Please, gentlemen, leave us elders an out; if you want anything, help yourselves!”
So, they thought that they were robbing them? Tang Fan kind of wasn’t sure how to react. “Are you not clear on what you’ve done? Communicating with enemies from the inside, passing military information on to the Tartars — that accusation alone is enough to get you both deaths from a thousand cuts! Shopkeep Jin has already confessed, so you should say all that you know, shouldn’t you?”
Aunt Xing’s expression quickly changed, and she started shaking. Doctor Jiang just grit his teeth. “We don’t know anything!”
“You still deny it at this point?!” Pang Qi exclaimed furiously. He stepped up to nab him, only to get stopped by Tang Fan.
The latter’s gaze retracted from its survey of their surroundings, then landed upon the Jiang couple that was huddled together in fear before them. “Since you two are living in a place like this, you’re not getting money, nor benefits. Presumably, you’re not willingly being used by the White Lotus Society, but are being coerced by them, right?”
For people like this, using torture like they had on Shopkeep Jin would have had no use. Finding their weakness was needed.
“I recall that Miss Du once said before that you have a son that went to the mountains to gather herbs, yet didn’t return, so he might have been snatched by an animal. It looks like now, though, that it wasn’t an animal that snatched him at all.”
Doctor Jiang clenched his jaw and said nothing, but Aunt Xing couldn’t help crying quietly.
“We come from the capital,” Tang Fan slightly warmed. “We’re imperial ambassadors sent by the Emperor. If there’s some secret that’s hard to keep, say so. We will help deal with it for you.”
He brought out his identity tag and passed it over. The Jiangs were literate, and upon seeing the words ‘Left Metropolitan Censor, Tang Fan’ engraved, they mostly believed him.
Ordinary citizens like them had lived in the border area all their lives. The Lord Emperor signified loftiness and omnipotence. Once she heard that they were ambassadors sent by that Lord Emperor, Aunt Xing finally released her husband’s hand, then knelt down upon the floor with a thud. “I beg of you, sirs! Save my son!”
“Stop talking!” Doctor Jiang automatically reprimanded.
Aunt Xing turned her head back. “Why won’t you let me talk?! There’s been no news from Dayong up until now! We don’t even know if he’s dead or alive! If you make me wait any longer, I might as well die!”
He let out a long sigh, then said no more.
Tang Fan helped her up. “Say everything in full, Aunt Xing.”
She wiped off her tears, explaining what had happened while choking up.
The Jiang’s were not members of the Society, but their son had vanished after going into the mountains some time before, everyone’s search bearing no fruit. When they had believed that something had befallen him, someone abruptly came by and said that he wasn’t dead yet, but the Jiang’s needed to act according to that someone’s words, else his false death would become a real one.
Their counterpart had brought along a letter from their son, the handwriting on it finally convincing Doctor Jiang and Aunt Xing that he was alive. Following that, they would receive letters from him at intervals. The other party’s act, in addition to expressing to the Jiang’s that their son was unharmed, was to threaten them into not making any rash actions.
For the sake of their son’s well-being, they had to do what the other party wanted, thus becoming a link in this chain.
“Do you know the identity of the one that found you?” Tang Fan asked.
“I do. He’s Shen Gui, one of the richest merchants in Guangling County. After I get the prescriptions from Shopkeep Jin, I give them to Shen Gui, too.”
“Does Miss Du from Zhongjing Hall know of this?”
“She doesn’t,” Aunt Xing answered sadly. “I’ve taken advantage of her and her father’s kindness. Shen Gui said that after getting the prescription, I was to go to Zhongjing Hall and fetch the medicine before anything else, so that even if something did happen, it would be easy to keep it secret; others would only suspect the Hall, not me. Furthermore, due to our connection to the Hall, I can sometimes go with them out of the city in the carriages that transport medicine, with no need to pass through investigations.”
Having listened for a time, Sui Zhou said, “In other words, you don’t know any inside information at all?”
Doctor Jiang grimaced. “We don’t know who the people that caught our son were, let alone the other party’s identity. Whatever they told us to do, we have done, and we have no interest in asking about what secrets were even in those prescriptions. Why would we think about causing such a huge headache?”
“Where is Shen Gui now?”
“He lives in Guangling County,” Aunt Xing said. “He has a lot of properties. Really, we had never expected this… a man that was so far removed from us, why would he come and threaten us?…”
“Shopkeep Jin, who passed you the information, is a White Lotus Society follower,” Tang Fan said. “Shen Gui is likely to be one, too.”
“What?!” The married couple was dumbstruck, the shock on their faces not appearing to be faked.
“W-Will my son be okay, then? Sir, you must rescue him!” Aunt Xing quickly began to shed tears.
“We will save who deserve to be saved,” Tang Fan answered warmly, “but both of your suspicions have not yet been cleared up. You will have to come with us to Datong.”
She hesitantly looked at Doctor Jiang.
With things at this point, Doctor Jiang had no sort of hesitation, nodding. “You all have orders, so we won’t impede. We can even bring you to point out Shen Gui — just rescue our son!”
Having the cooperation of the Jiang couple, events went unexpectedly smoothly.
Just as Aunt Xing had said, as the wealthiest person in Guangling, Shen Gui had a lot of property, the shops under his name alone taking up an entire street. His home also contained pretty wives and concubines and a crowd of children; someone like this would not be able to run, inferior to the bachelor that was Shopkeep Jin.
The other party had never expected that Aunt Xing would already be exposed. When Tang Fan and the others dropped by, Shen Gui had just come back from a patrol of his shares to see that the inside of his home had since turned into a big, panicked mess. His women and children were converged into a side courtyard from getting ousted there, while the Brocade Guards were seated like kings in his main hall, inviting him into the fire.
Frightened by them, Shen Gui confessed nearly anything and everything. He claimed that he wasn’t a Society follower at all, he simply had business dealings with them and had once subsidized their head honcho, so they revered him as an esteemed guest. Due to his trade of many years and superb relationship with the local authorities, the Society had asked him to pass information along.
What he had to do was take Aunt Xing’s prescription, then use the excuse of trade to hand it to society followers outside the pass, which would then be transferred to the Tartars.
He further confessed that Aunt Xing’s son was not with him, but had been taken away by the Society. His counterpart had only told him to get into contact with Aunt Xing on their behalf.
Despite his ready cooperation, Sui Zhou and the rest wouldn’t trust him unconditionally just because he answered every question. They immediately turned the Shen home on its head, discovered some suspicious correspondences, seized the home, then brought every single member of the family back to Datong for a thorough investigation. By the time they got back to Datong, nightfall had just descended.
On Wang Zhi’s end, operations hadn’t gone so smoothly.
When he had brought Shopkeep Jin to arrest the pawnshop owner, he had come across no resistance. The other hadn’t anticipated that Shopkeep Jin would sell him out, leading to his capture by Wang Zhi’s people. On the other side, however, the people he had sent to catch Ding Rong had come back in failure, to tell him that Ding Rong had fled.
The translator says: ‘Scuse the slight delay in updates. New panny D strain outbreaks in my area, other drama… you all know how it is.